Heraclius, Byzantine Emperor

Heraclius, Byzantine Emperor

“Be not terrified by the multitude of your foes.”

Who he was

An intrepid emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Heraclius registered several successes during his extensive reign. He hailed from the Armenian Highlands and was the son of the exarch of Africa. He was called to depose the corrupt and ineffective leader of the empire, Phocas. 

Mired in the problems he inherited from Phocas and other predecessors, the energetic Heraclius went to work. First he tried to appease the Avars, who were encroaching on Byzantine territory. A master strategist, he forgave them for trying to kidnap him after reneging on their word to negotiate and made peace so he could concentrate on what had benighted the Romans for years: Persia. He ably led Byzantine forces against the Persian Sassanid Empire and defeated them while recapturing Jerusalem and returning what was thought to be the “True Cross” of Jesus to the Christian empire from the hands of Muslim Persians. Not averse to taking up a sword as emperor, in one battle he led a charge, slaying the Persian commander before his men joined him and beat back enemy troops.

Administratively, he instituted several important changes that had a lasting effect on the empire. One was changing the official language from Latin to Greek, which remained in force until the fall of Constantinople. He is also generally credited with reforming the military in the regional areas of the empire that stretched into Anatolia. The new system enabled the empire to more successfully and efficiently withstand attacks. 

Later in life, he was less successful against the rampaging Arab conquests at the edges of the empire. As a result, the Arabs gained Egypt and Syria, but it is thought that were it not for Heraclius’s strong leadership, reorganizing of the empire and strengthening of the military, the Arabs would have had much greater gains that they did, particularly in light of the success of their other conquests. 

Interesting fact

After the death of his first wife, Heraclius married his niece, who bore him nine children. 

Learn more about him

Heraclius: Britannica

Heraclius to the Rescue: The History of Byzantium podcast